Why Automating Art Sales May Not Be the Best Idea

The Importance of Personal Connections with Art Buyers

Pressing Pause on Automation...

Paint cans, title slide, newspaper print, art blog cover image
Time to reconnect with your creative flow!

In this weeks blog we will be looking at pressing the pause button on fully automating the process of selling art. Not because automation is inherently bad, but because there’s still a really long way to go before we no longer have to turn up at physical art events so that we can build strong connections with those who buy into our work and ultimately, buy into us as artists.

Treat every buyer like the superstar they are…

In a world where oil is finally more expensive than printer ink and Old Mother Hubbard appears to be running the world’s supply chains, never in the history of ever has it been so important to look after those who continue to buy our work. Even more so when those buyers continue to buy our work during a cost of living crisis amidst a global economy that makes those self checkout machines at the supermarket scream unexpected item in the bagging area if you buy anything other than own brand discount tin foil.

The World Changed…

I don’t know if it’s just me that’s noticed that the world seems to have changed dramatically since the pandemic. Everywhere you go you are forced into utilising some sort of technology that automates a response that you would have once expected to be performed by a human.

Another thing I noticed is how good manners seem to have been thrown out of the window alongside the discarded wrappings of fast foods, and it’s not just young people any more. It’s young people, old people, and normal-aged people (53 year old males who identify as Geeks).

Three years living under the covid cloud confronting the fragility of our existence, and an acceleration of automation that meant we didn’t have to consider the feelings of a bot, I think it’s fair to say that huge numbers of people are feeling disenfranchised from the very premise of society and presence, and then we’re told we can no longer speak to another human and we need to press 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, to join a queue.

Automation was already nearing hair pulling levels of frustration before the pandemic but then we spent the best part of two years singing the virtues of non-contact shopping. The most primordial of human instincts kicked in, and along with our need to survive, the online shop with delivery to your doorstep, an activity which could be completed without feeling awkward about not opening the door to the delivery driver, became the flavour of the day. Just leave the shopping right there buddy and take three steps back, I need to spray it with my alcohol based spray first.

If a few years of eating alcohol tainted bananas wasn’t enough, phone lines were replaced almost overnight with chatbots that kept you waiting for half an hour while you shouted in capital letters as you typed, “I WANT TO SPEAK TO A HUMAN”, and with the pandemic not quite over but certainly over in enough people’s heads to make you feel like an outcast if you continued to wear a face mask, I think we’re now at the point where we need to switch some of that automation off and finally take off the discount tin foil hats.

Fried food art print by Mark Taylor
Fry and Fry Again by Mark Taylor

And then there are the three-percenters…

According to some report or other I looked at the other week on the internet, 3% of the world’s population enjoy speaking to Chatbots and the same people also favoured contactless shopping. I’m not sure who those three percent are but they certainly shouldn’t be going outside and nor should they ever be put in the precarious position of being in the same room as a sharp object without adult supervision. I can hand on heart say that I have never knowingly met a three percenter, or at least one that will admit to their deep admiration of a chatbot, I mean it’s just weird.

Now we have to change, apparently…

The rest of the world might be eager to utilise the services of ChatGPT and fully automate their workflow, me on the other hand, well I’m of the breed that doesn’t very much care for it. To put some context around this, as we, or certainly I, discussed in my last musings, I have worked with AI for years and I still stick by my words in that it’s not yet mature enough to trust, and it’s dangerous enough to know that we should never trust certain elements of the population to go anywhere near it, even if it’s only the AI platforms they’re happy for us to see, you should see what’s in the lab.

Give me time and I’m sure I will eventually see the light, but right now, after a couple of years of avoiding people-ey situations, I would rather have a little bit of social interaction. Not too much because, well, people, but enough to at least go home with a product that I didn’t feel I had to earn through pressing random numbers on a dial pad and hoping that the right thing was in the right box when it finally turned up.

I’m all for change, mostly it can be a force for good to coin a much overused cliché, but there are some things that really don’t need too much change because as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it, and once again I find myself using another overused cliché, but face to face interactions really aren’t broken in our business.

So, I’m making a pact with all of my regular buyers right now. I am not going down the road of mass-automation, nor am I introducing chatbots, and I certainly won’t be having some AI presence write all of my blog posts, journalists and real authors are becoming rarer than Panda’s lately. Note to editors here, a months long media course and paid access to ChatGPT does not a journalist make, and yet I find so many articles lately that are clearly the ramblings of an hallucinating AI bot.

The breaking news is that I’m changing the way I run my business by remaining just as I am. If a buyer wants to talk to me about my process, the weather, my views on if now is the right time to change the UK government (it is and has been for the past 13-years..), or the buyer just wants to have a proper cup of coffee with me that’s served in a ceramic mug, then I’m all in. Even better if they want to pay me in cash or vintage computers and old magazines in exchange for my art. I’m not a fan of a bank that prevents me from walking through a set of physical doors so that I can complain to a real human.

So yes, my business is changing. The change here though is that I’m not going to get sucked into a world where communication is no better than the T9 predictive text that used to be on my original Nokia phone (still with plenty of charge all these years later). I’m changing in a different way to every other business I hear about and I’m going to continue doing things the old school way. How’s it going? Well,  I’m talking to clients face to face, and frankly, business has never been better.

endless path retro abstract art print
Endless Path by Mark Taylor

It's not too late to change…

There is another reason for me not to take that immediate leap and go all in on fully automating my business at least not just yet, and that’s because my current collector base actually prefer the old way of doing things. I know this because I asked them on our regular Teams catch up.

We have a huddle once a month where we put the world to rights and mostly end up reminiscing about the 80s. It’s the monthly event that brings my collectors together and it’s also where I showcase a couple of new works like it’s some virtual retro Tupperware party. Good fun, and I nearly always get a sale, especially if I display public admiration of their wine drinking capability.

What I found out the other Sunday night was that they like a coffee and a chat while deciding what piece of art to buy, they also like it when I treat them like rock stars even if they’re only buying a sticker or a greetings card and I suspect the clients of many other independent artists are just the same.

Art Ain’t A Widget…

As artists we’re not in the business of selling off-the-shelf widgets and that is probably why as creative types we need to think a bit differently to almost every other business out there. It makes sense to automate a subscription service or when you only sell widget-like things, but the sale of art involves the triggering of emotions, an interaction and connection between the artist and the buyer that runs far deeper than a tweet.

That said, going all in with the technology and automating much of the process will work for many businesses, I think the art world is unique enough to warrant a dual approach between the old way and the new. Not least that there are many art buyers who still yearn for the “experience” of buying art rather than only the transaction.

A Brief History of Selling Art…

Throughout art history, the sale of art has been a fundamental aspect of the art world. As artists we create works that are not only expressions of our creativity but also commodities that can be bought and sold. The ways in which art has been sold have varied over time and across cultures, mostly reflecting changes in the economic and social context of the art market but the fundamental principles have always remained the same.

In ancient times, art was often created for religious or political purposes, and the artists were commissioned by rulers, temples, or wealthy individuals to create works that reflected their power and status. These works were not necessarily intended for sale, but rather as symbols of authority and wealth.

However, some ancient cultures did have marketplaces for art, such as the Greek agora, where sculptors and painters sold their works to the public. Imagine if you will, a physical yet antiquated version of Etsy, set up in a cobbled street with the buyers wearing  a peplos or chiton and a cloak which would have been known as an himation. Not unlike some of the art and craft fairs that we visit today to buy mass manufactured incense sticks and salt lamps.

We do seem to have lost our way with many of these popular monthly local art and craft fairs of late because most of them seem to be filled with sellers hawking product they could have got in bulk from Ali-Baba. Town councils in their desperation to bring people back to the high street set these things up and call them artisan markets but never consult with the local arts community to figure out the meaning of artisan. If I were to set one up, I would hope the bar to openly trade might be set a little higher than a physical version of Wish dot com.

Like I say, I am old school. When I visit a local artisan market I like to buy random stuff made by artisans and I like the conversation and occasionally the banter. I’m the same when I visit an art gallery, I don’t want to see a collection generated by AI from the stolen art of others, I want to know that an artist spent at least 20 minutes creating something after spending 20 years working on their craft. That’s how it as at one time. Physical events, professional artists, and not a bot in sight.

During the Renaissance in Europe, the rise of the merchant class led to a significant increase in demand for art, as wealthy patrons sought to display their status and cultural sophistication. The artists of the time, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were often employed by these patrons to create works for their personal collections. However, there were also markets for art in public spaces, such as the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, where artists could sell their works directly to the public. Once again, this would have been a period in history where it would have been possible to buy hand crafted artisan products, rather than mass manufactured incense sticks and salt lamps.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of the art market as we know it today began to take shape. Auction houses, such as Sotheby's and Christie's, were founded in London in the mid-18th century, and they quickly became important players in the sale of art. Private galleries also emerged during this period, and these allowed collectors to view and purchase works in a more controlled setting.

In the 20th century, the art market underwent significant changes due to the emergence of new art movements such as modernism and conceptual art. These movements challenged traditional notions of what art was and how it should be sold. As a result, new types of galleries and art fairs emerged which catered to these new forms of art and provided a platform for emerging artists.

Today, the art market continues to evolve, with new technologies such as online marketplaces and blockchain-based authentication systems once again changing the way art is bought and sold. However, the fundamentals of the art market remain the same as collectors and investors seek out works that they consider to be of cultural or financial value.

American Diner Art Print by Mark Taylor
American Diner Art Print by Mark Taylor

But where the art market has changed most is that a majority of the art market for the majority of working artists is no longer confined to any of the above, for many buyers today outside of the galleries and major art fairs, it’s a purely decorative need that drives the purchase. The significant change is in what and why people buy these days, not necessarily just how or where they buy it.

That’s not to be disparaging to most of the artwork that we’re more likely to come across in big box stores or online, even galleries exist with the sole purpose of selling “art to the masses” and it’s not to say that the art produced is produced with less talent or skill than we witnessed from the Old Masters, but the art market today has evolved to be more than the sum of its parts and there is no longer a single art market (if there ever really was).

The art market of today is no longer seen as a singular, it is many art markets that serve very different needs and tastes but the principles of selling art are not fundamentally any different today than they were back in the 1800s. Nodding back to even older ways of selling art, there are now art markets that serve an even more traditional method of trading works by utilising the good old fashioned barter system and I really wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see more of this come back. I’m always happy to consider a trade, so long as the trade is not the promise of great exposure.

As I said earlier, for a lot of people, it isn’t the transaction of an art sale that excites them, it is the experience of an art sale that hooks them. It’s how we as artists deliver that hook that turns non-typical art buyers into potential art collectors. So it’s essential to understand how to provide that hook if you are an independent visual artist running a small art business and it’s essential to the wider art community that exists even within the major galleries. A new art buyer purchasing a relatively inexpensive piece of decorative art today could easily develop aspirations to visit a gallery and purchase a piece of high end fine art tomorrow.

Relying on online platforms…

As an artist, it can be tempting to rely solely on online sales platforms such as Etsy, Amazon, social media or even your own website to sell your work. After all, these platforms offer a global reach, convenient payment processing, and a low barrier to entry. As I have said many times on these pages, it’s far easier today to reach a global audience than it is to reach a local one.

So while I sing the virtues of doing things the old way I’m not suggesting that we step away completely from our online world, not even just a bit. If the pandemic has taught us anything it should be that we should have access to a number of baskets to place our eggs in rather than just the one, and at least one of those baskets should nod back to the time before digital took over the world.

You also need to have a physical presence in real, not just virtual spaces…

Selling your work in person allows you to connect with potential buyers on a more personal level and it presents you with a unique gift that no online presence can truly provide, you can occasionally create those deep connections that form between two humans that can then turn casual buyers into life-long collectors. To do that, you have to build a relationship with the buyer alongside a level of trust and that’s a really hard thing to do really well online. Where it is done well, there’s almost always a human doing something behind the scenes.

The downside with offline is that I simply can’t automate some of the numbers I need to manage my output and influence my thinking. When I place my work online I get analytics presented in a neat little grid. I get to see a lot of numbers and pretty graphs, but they give me no real sense of who the people who are visiting my site really are.

Now I’m sure if I had access to the kind of analytics that the likes of Amazon use, I would be able to tell you exactly when someone will make their next purchase, I could probably tell what they’ll be thinking in five minutes time, but us regular folk don’t have access to anything quite like that.

With the analytics that most of us will have access to, I can’t tell you that person A is more responsive to the texture of the artwork, I can probably make an informed guess that they like the colour blue because they looked at more works in that colour, but looking at online analytics, I’m missing critical information that makes it easy for me to work out not just the kind of artwork they’re more likely to buy, but the kind of artwork that I really should be more focussed on creating.

Most of us have some level of access to online analytics platforms that do a very good job, but everything I do after looking through the virtual numbers is only ever going to be reactive. A thousand people might have viewed a particular artwork during the day but there’s nothing that I can do in the moment to try and persuade the 990 people who didn’t buy a print or an original to part with their money, I can’t be proactive in the way that I can be face to face.

By participating in art shows, gallery exhibitions, or even setting up a pop-up shop in a local market, you have the opportunity to meet your audience face to face, hear their feedback, and answer their questions about your work. This type of interaction builds trust and can lead to long-term relationships with collectors who will continue to support your art in the future.

Additionally, participating in offline events and exhibitions can help you build your reputation as an artist. By being present in the local arts community and participating in events, you increase your visibility and the chances of being discovered by curators, collectors, and other art professionals who can help take your career to the next level.

90s digital camera art print by Mark Taylor
90s Digital Camera Art Print by Mark Taylor

Another advantage of offline sales is the potential for higher profit margins. While online sales platforms offer convenience and a potentially large customer base, they often charge fees for listing, processing payments, and shipping. We might balk at the thought of being represented by a gallery who then take 50% of the sale, but some of these online marketplaces are happiest when you’re only making ten percent of the total sale and you’re doing all of the work when it comes to encouraging customers to visit.

By selling your work in person, you mostly eliminate these fees and can potentially make a higher profit on each sale. You still have business costs, and there’s the matter of your time, but adding people into the mix when few others are doing that, is now seen as being something very different from what’s rapidly becoming the norm.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that when you market and sell your work offline, you choose the art you are surrounded by. Online, that gift is not usually within your reach, your closest competitor could set up shop right next door, or even on the same web page, or even worse, you could be the only human in a page of bots.

These marketplaces have a place, but they should be used as another outlet, a tool, rather than being set up in the hope that they become a passive income generating gravy train, but so many artists fall for the promise of automating an income, and from experience, that rarely ever happens.

Relying on automation to fully look after your business is also fundamentally deskilling you, and if you don’t have the business skills already, they’ll hamper you when you eventually need them. Participating in offline sales can help you hone your marketing and sales skills but more than that, I’ve yet to come across any technology that can take critical business decisions based on years of experience as a creator and that all-important gut instinct.

If I take on a commission I need to qualify the commissioner so I can feel confident about being paid, if I left that to AI, right now, I don’t think it’s yet capable of instinctively knowing when something is off. Artists have for a long time been targets for scammers.

By interacting with customers in person and observing their reactions to your work, you can gain valuable insights into what resonates with your audience and how to communicate the value of your work. This knowledge can then be applied to your online sales strategy, making it more effective and efficient and that human response is priceless, never underestimate just how much it tells you about you need to know about what you need to include in your next creation.

You might have to focus on an offline business model in the future…

Not to scare the horses here, but the world of social media is changing and because social media is the bedrock on online marketing, this becomes a worry on so many fronts. Forget the cancel culture if you inadvertently offend a bot, that’s just one issue with the potential to sink a business. The new worry for small businesses is that these platforms are on the brink of massive change or collapse without some serious financial injections that will replace the pots of gold they became accustomed too when people were less concerned about privacy and the days when people clicked on ads.

The Twitter platform under Musk has realised what most of us on the outer fringes have realised for years, running a social media platform is expensive and when regulation and legislation prevent the tech giants from harvesting your data in the same way that they were doing less than a decade ago, the monetisation of those platforms has to come from somewhere else and the only other place they can turn to, is either online ads or you.

Let’s face it, in some way we have always funded social media and we have always paid a high price to use it. We have handed over access to our lives in ways that often, even our family or partners would be oblivious to. We shared our lives and innermost thoughts voluntarily for years while knowing deep down it was a problem, and then it became a problem in the open and we were all outraged that companies could take our personal data and do a bunch of other stuff with it like sell it. It was all too late, they already had it and then we began to find out what they really did with it.

It was the sale and sharing of this data that funded the access we had that meant we didn’t need to reach into our pockets and pay to post with physical cash. Online Ad spend replaced the data sales for a while, albeit that online ads were more than likely never quite as fruitful as the data sales, and while it was a steady income it was one that eventually wasn’t quite enough to continue paying the rent especially when privacy restrictions started applying to online ads as well.

With an expensive platform left to run and diminishing income, It would be a momentous task to then ask the end user to start paying with money directly out of their pockets because since the very start of social media, the tech giants have done nothing but condition end users to expect the services for free, and somehow, now it’s our problem.

Enter from stage right, twitter blue. Musk’s latest attempt at monetising something that everyone had been getting for free in an attempt to pay back the millions of dollars a day that twitter was loosing. This was partly because twitter had found itself in a place that needed to be fed with constant hires and increasingly more infrastructure at a time during the pandemic when infrastructure was at a premium.

As the bubble of Twitter began to stretch beyond its income, something that was likely happening way before the pandemic, it was inevitable that at some point it would begin to rip at the seams. Once the reliance on Twitter and social media more widely went back towards pre-pandemic levels, albeit lower levels because people were fed up with the division and prejudice and all that other stuff, there was no longer a need for the additional hires and the number of people jettisoning the platform would put the need for the additional infrastructure into question.

Something had to change in its delivery and Musk’s litmus test of moving the income generation towards end users to fund the platform rather than advertisers essentially set out the stall that this would be the end of free at the point of access social media for everyone. You can bet that other platforms are watching closely and we are now heading towards a social media landscape that could very well soon find itself in a transition towards being entirely pay to play.

So I think it’s wise to start thinking about some of these changes as artists and small business owners. Social media will exponentially change over the coming years and with Facebook now rolling out paid for verification, the transition has now officially started, even if they’re not openly admitting it. Twitter have now announced that those who don’t pay will have no reach, to be honest, I’m not sure how most of us would tell the difference, so if Twitter was the litmus test, the question becomes, does this change in direction mean that other social platforms including Facebook will go the same way?

Industrial abstract art print by Mark Taylor
Industrial by Mark Taylor

If I was to go all out, and if I was a betting man, and if I were to also look at the current business model objectively, what social media needs right now is a good veterinarian to put it out of its misery. That might sound cold and dramatic, but this is exactly what would be needed if the same thing happened to any other business in any other space.

Social media as we currently know it certainly needs a reset and it really needs better PR people, not CTOs and engineers being the public face. It also needs to start providing better value to creators and the small businesses that have been propping it up with ad-spend or attracting more viewers. Social media is so similar these days to the wider media industry that it’s become more and more about getting eyes on the content so that they can serve the ads, and it’s also become more about dividing populations because division drives engagement.

Can anything save it, I’m certainly not sure that monetisation by the end user can, we’re far too late for that. I’m not convinced that the numbers will be there, especially in the midst of a downward spiralling global economy that’s not just affecting businesses but the people who buy from those businesses as well. We are already saturated by subscriptions and I don’t think social media is a pick up and put down option in the way services such as Netflix are.

Could innovation save social media? A Metaverse has been done before with Second Life, the tundra of the meta through the lens of Virtual Reality is currently as barren as a desert, digital real estate hasn’t had its foundations laid even if companies have already invested heavily in the pixelated ground, add to that, the messaging isn’t clear about what it is, and ultimately, the technology just isn’t there at the point of need which is exactly right now.

Where the tech is available it’s not overly affordable for everyone, and these are barriers that need to be removed. It’s not so much everything everywhere, all at once, it’s more akin to everything nowhere, far too late.

I realise that this might sound as if I’m not just attending the funeral of social media but I’m celebrating and  eating canapes at its wake. I think that’s inevitable, in time we will all be attending the wake and providing a post mortem style commentary on what went wrong. Social media will either change beyond recognition or it will eventually fail. It will become smaller, it might even become more focussed, both of which will be good but I think we can see where it’s heading and eventually, sometime possibly sooner than we think, we will have to pay to play and I’m not as yet convinced the numbers will be there to make it worth it.

As artists, I think it might be wise to make sure any plan you have for the future absolutely includes having an offline strategy. It’s going to be critical that it still includes online components, but neither should be completely symbiotic with each other. If businesses are going to find the pay to play landscape a challenge that’s a good indication that regular end users will too. If the buyers get priced out of using it then we’re kind of back to where we were before digital.

In some form, I think most of these services will continue, I also think some will come to a painful end, but as artists, if we are to make the investment in them, be that in time or money, we really will need to know that our audience of buyers will be sticking around.

Fly me to the moon art print astronaut by Mark Taylor
Fly me to the Moon by Mark Taylor

The Supermarket Loyalty Scheme is heading the same way…

It’s probably worth quickly picking up on this point too, especially as supermarket loyalty schemes draw many parallels with the primary purpose of social media, at least for the companies that operate these platforms and schemes.

Supermarket loyalty schemes have been around for several decades, and they operate on a simple principle: customers earn points or rewards for their purchases, which can be redeemed for discounts or free products. In exchange, supermarkets collect valuable data on their customers' shopping habits, such as what products they buy, how often they buy them, and how much they spend.

This data allows supermarkets to better understand their customers' needs and preferences, and to tailor their marketing and promotional efforts accordingly and they’re better placed to make this work, you can’t easily dismiss a pop-up ad when it’s on display in front of the humous for the three-percenters to buy in a supermarket.

The value to businesses and marketers lies in the wealth of data that they collect from users. The purpose of both loyalty schemes and social media is to collect data on consumer behaviour and preferences, but the limiting factor of any of these schemes is that they can only observe behaviour that happens within the schemes reach and sight. When Apple made privacy changes, and additional data protection laws became better enforced, the value for retailers and social media companies began to ebb away.

These schemes alongside the data collection methods used in social media are also painfully expensive to manage, particularly now the public are more sighted on the real purpose of how their data is often used, as a result, people are more reluctant than ever before to share their details and they’re much less inclined to share their email address. Two big issues spring to mind here.

One of the most significant parallels between social media and supermarket loyalty schemes is the potential for data misuse. In recent years, there have been several high-profile data breaches involving social media platforms which have resulted in the exposure of users' personal information. Similarly, there have been instances of supermarkets selling or sharing customer data with third-party marketers, without customers' knowledge or consent.

Another parallel is the ethics of data collection. While both social media and supermarket loyalty schemes offer users the ability to opt-out of data collection, many users are not aware of the extent of data collection or the implications of sharing their personal information. This raises questions about transparency and informed consent, and whether users are being fully informed about the ways in which their data is being used.

These schemes are so inherently similar to social media that they’re almost an exact fit inside the same bubbles that have been bursting so rapidly in the tech industry recently.  There comes a point where you have learned everything you need to learn, and it’s at this point when running those schemes becomes yet another expense that eats up profit, and there also comes a point when the data stops flowing because people now realise they have a choice.

What we can expect to see with these schemes in the future, if they indeed do continue in a similar way, is that the supermarkets will look towards monetisation. You’ll subscribe to a discount club, in the UK we’re already seeing this with one of the biggest supermarkets, Tesco, with its Tesco Plus program, you will get benefits, maybe slightly lower prices, but what’s the real cost?

I think the point here is that the digital landscape will change for small businesses. I know a lot of my buyers have already moved off social platforms completely having become tired of the division and politicisation of almost every post that appears in a timeline. The only respite seems to be from the small businesses who are doing their best to continue to have a presence for their customers who remain online on these platforms, but even small business posts often have their comments hijacked by some numpty with an opinion about something totally irrelevant to the post.

abstract face art print by Mark taylor
Waiting in the Sky by Mark Taylor

How to de-automate in an automated world…

There’s no real secret to this other than we need to strip things right back to basics and follow the principles of good old customer service and go back to treating buyers like the superstars they are. I have so many conversations with new artists who have pursued the online only route of sales and mostly those conversations are around how to increase an artists online exposure. Often there’s an expectation that the answer is you have to do something online to increase online exposure but that’s the lowest price of entry, you need to be just as, if not even more focussed on developing a profile and a presence offline in parallel.

Increasing your visibility starts offline by engaging with the art community, attending physical events, and building offline engagement by communicating face to face. I’ve never been convinced that doing everything online is a good strategy in the art world. Today I spend more time having offline dialogue with buyers and potential buyers than I do creating social media posts. It’s not that running an online campaign is futile, it’s essential for now, but it’s more essential to be where your potential buyers are and they’re not always engaged with social media.

We can’t assume that people will just find us, the online art space is crowded, almost saturated, so unless you are doing something that really stands head and shoulders above anything anyone else is doing to promote themselves and their work, I don’t think we can make the assumption that potential buyers will be purposely seeking us or our work out online because it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.  

When it comes to selling art I believe from experience that it’s way easier to sell art face to face than it is online. That could be due to human nature, it’s way more difficult to say no to a human than it is to say no to a screen. When I do go online, I’m not necessarily going to social channels as a first port of call, for my retro works I engage with potential clients through services such as Discord and Reddit where I can find a community where the discussion is more focussed on my subject area, or I turn up at physical events.

Never think of online purely as the typical social media platforms, if you paint niche subjects it’s more likely that your audience is going to be hanging around in the community areas of specialist websites, or they’re hanging around on Discord or on Reddit. People are looking towards alternatives to the traditional platforms and where those alternatives don’t exist, people are looking offline. I’m very much a believer that if you want to engage with a community, you have to be part of that community.

portable cd player art print
Ready, Steady, Pause by Mark Taylor

Be upfront…

If you are dealing with people, and that might be a strange concept post-pandemic, humans, mostly just like us, tend to favour buying from people who are upfront and honest and that includes being open and honest about your pricing. If you sell a ten dollar print, few people will question your pricing strategy, but if you are selling a piece of work that would be a considered purchase for the buyer, they will often want more information and you could find yourself in a place where you have to justify the price you have arrived at.

It’s a nuance of the art world, we rarely question how the price of a widget is decided, every time I visit the supermarket lately I question why my favourite Cheddar cheese has almost doubled in price over the past year, yet I still begrudgingly pop it in the basket and then hope that there’s not too much month left at the end of the money when I get to the checkout. I’m upset, even angry about the increased cost, but I don’t then question it when I have to pay.

With art, the artist almost always has to justify the price they charge. If you can do this, buyers will be appreciative and will rarely show resentment and most people really do understand the increasing costs that small businesses face.

They also understand that you get better at doing what you do and that you have to place an insane amount of effort into keeping your skills up to date, they also understand when your work becomes more in demand, but you have to be able to explain it so that they understand that you’re not simply nickel and diming them.

What buyers don’t really like is when pricing is obscured or ambiguous. I have seen this so many times recently where the price of a work is indicated but then other charges are then added on top at the last minute. If a buyer thinks a work is going to cost them a hundred dollars but they then find that there are additional charges for taxes and shipping making it close to two hundred dollars when they go to the checkout, in a world where everyone has become what I call, “Prime Trained”, they tend to turn up their noses at the last minute and you end up losing a sale.

Prime trained, for those who aren’t, is the concept of buying a product with free, expedited delivery, inclusive of taxes, and presented as a single cost. Even then it might not be clear, shipping is generally free for Amazon Prime members, but the cost of shipping is part of the price you pay to be a Prime member but when we see free shipping, it’s one less thing to worry about and it takes another barrier away for the buyer.

1980s retro car art print by Mark Taylor
One Careful Owner by Mark Taylor

Offer a guarantee…

Whenever I sell anything online buyers have 30-days to change their mind. If it’s a stock item such as a print and they buy it directly, I offer the same guarantee when I’m dealing with them face to face. If they want to change it for something they like better, that’s no problem either. The only exception to this is when they have ordered a bespoke commission, but even then, if a buyer is unsure whether a work will match their décor then I’m more than happy to let them hang a similarly sized print on their wall for a week or make an agreed number of changes to the commission.

The secret to offering this kind of guarantee isn’t in financing their poor decorative choices where the piece in question would be absolutely out of place in the buyers surroundings, but to ensure that the customer is buying what will work for them from the outset.

This means working with them to find the perfect piece that they want to live with, doing something as simple as demonstrating how they can use the augmented reality feature on the Pixels app to virtually view the work on their wall whether they purchase the work from Pixels or not, but more critically, taking some time to converse with them to figure out what their needs really are. Those are all effective things that should be done as part of what should be an ongoing dialogue during the process of selling a piece of work to make sure the buyer remains happy.

You don’t have to offer money back guarantees, that’s a difficult thing to do as an independent artist running a small business when you have to spend so many hours and make so much financial investment to create a piece of work. You have material costs, sometimes you need to add licencing costs, shipping, and other business costs, and the time you invest, so the stakes can be high even for straightforward works where no client revisions are needed.

It is different online where we don’t necessarily run point on or carry the burden of the transaction, and it’s different when it’s an open edition print that can be returned to stock, but there are ways in which you can offer buyers some peace of mind. If you have prints in stock then it’s easy enough to offer to swap out work for a piece that will work better in the space that they have.

Your mission is to make sure the buyer is happy because that’s the kind of juju that brings in more buyers. I’m sure there was once a piece of research that found that buyers who were happy with the product and the service were more likely to turn into repeat buyers, and a few would even let their friends know too.

In many cases, art purchases are going to be significant financial outlays for buyers and they’re buying something that they will have to live with for a while. It still gives me chills after all these years when I think about that, knowing that a piece of work I created is hanging on someone’s wall, so I will always do whatever needs to be done to make sure they never have to live with something they resent.

Never underestimate the power of Haribo Gummy Bears…

Just not the sugar free edition which is a direct replacement for a weapon of mass destruction involving frequent visits to the bathroom. It’s well documented that over consumption of sugar free gummy bears is bad for the gut and even worse for the bowel, but regular gummy bears, they’re a diplomatic tool for good. I digress, but we often talk about the value add, and I think that mostly it’s something that we overthink.

A value add might come from the after sales service that you provide, or it might come from the materials you use, it could even be a low cost upgrade to a premium paper or canvas stock, often there’s very little difference between budget and not quite so budget supports. Or, it could just be adding a nice touch to the packaging when you send the goods out. So many Etsy sellers have jumped on the Haribo bandwagon recently, every time I make a new purchase from a different Etsy seller I always seem to end up with a free mini-bag of Haribo’s in the packaging. It's a nice touch.

Discounting work is never a great idea but if you have collectors who regularly make a purchase there are things you can do to provide extra value that doesn’t devalue the work. There’s usually more room for flexibility with framing costs, or you can offer upgraded mats, a hanging kit, or if the buyers local, you can deliver and hang it for them. Never think of discounts being the only value you can add, there are plenty of creative ways to add value without it massively impacting the bottom line.

video 2000 art print by Mark Taylor
Video 2000 by Mark Taylor

Good Service is the New Old Way of Doing Things…

Offering good service is something that in time will be possible to offer using automation and AI. There are enough examples in the tech and service sector already where technology is as seamless as a human in delivering results, but these examples wouldn’t easily translate to the business of selling art, at least just yet.

As I said earlier, we’re selling an experience, something that is subjective, something that triggers an emotional response, and that’s a very different concept to selling a generic widget or an online service.

There’s a huge difference between good service and great service. To offer great service, well, I can’t think of any level of automation that provides that and I’m not convinced it ever will. Mostly, automation defaults to the minimum viable product. Automation just has to do a single job with no expectations that it will deliver any level of value over and above, it’s purpose it to achieve one single outcome for which it is tasked which might be to renew a subscription, raise a service ticket on a support desk, or any number of simple, usually single things that humans no longer have to do.

With humans, we kind if like it when they go over and above, and we like it even more when they make us feel special. Automation can’t do that without coming across as weird, have you ever had a chatbot give you a compliment that’s genuinely sincere? I think even with the progress being made in the world of AI, we’re still a very long way off it coming across as being authentically, authentic. AI is programmed to mimic being authentic, humans have authenticity built in, well most of them do.

landscape art print by Mark Taylor
Midnight Pass by Mark Taylor

Edge your bets…

AI and automation is clearly the future but my gut instincts and experience in the field tell me that it’s still a future that’s a way off despite the massive advances and the great AI race that’s taking place right now.

Before we get there, there will need to be more in the way of safeguarding that will be needed, maybe the blunt instrument of government regulation will eventually need to happen and there will certainly need to be oversight at some level to limit the opportunity to completely weaponise it. The problem is that AI is already being weaponised even in its current form and the recent calls for a six-month hiatus in machine learning models is a response that is a lot too late.

AI and automation might work really well for some businesses but I’m not convinced it will work completely autonomously in the process of selling art for a very long time. It can assist the process but the uniqueness and subjectivity of buying art isn’t something that is prescriptive.

As I said earlier, we can’t avoid any level of automation in our businesses, and I don’t think we should even try to avoid automation if it gives us more time to spend either working with a client or on a clients ask. But right now, the important thing is to make sure that we are looking after the buyers we already have, we need to make sure that we don’t alienate the buyers who simply refuse to engage online, but the important thing is that we remain responsive to our markets wherever they might hang out.

The lowest price of admission to becoming a professional artist is to make sure that you do have a web presence, a website that isn’t going away anytime soon, unlike the risk that plagues social media. It’s also important to have a social media presence, you need to be where your audience are.

But we don’t then have to follow trends, mistakenly thinking that we absolutely have to become increasingly digital, or automated, or appear to be uber cool. Art isn’t that kind of business, and I’m sure there are plenty of artists out there who are fans of automating much of what they do, but for the majority of working artists that’s just not where their audience will be at. Go ahead and ask them and you might be surprised at their response.

There’s one more thing to consider too. As artists, we’re here for a limited time and hopefully our art will be here for longer, but during this limited time we each have a responsibility to make sure that the arts never get completely consumed into what is often only a temporary world and for that, there will be many buyers who will thank you for not trying to automate the creation of future art history.

Until next time, I hope you have some creative fun and continue pushing forward with your art, you've got this!

Mark x

About Mark…

Mark is an artist who specialises in vintage inspired works featuring technology and random stuff from the 70s, 80s and 90s. He is also known for his landscape works and the occasional abstract.

You can purchase Mark’s work through Fine Art America or his Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com   You can also purchase prints and originals directly and some works are available for digital download via Zazzle. You can also view Mark’s portfolio website at https://beechhousemedia.com

Join the conversation on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia connect on Twitter, while it lasts, @beechhouseart or waste hours on Pinterest right here: https://pinterest.com/beechhousemedia


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